By Barbara Ray
Neighborhoods influence us in many subtle ways. When I was a kid, growing up in a small town—which for its size was essentially one big neighborhood—I absorbed the answers to what I’ve come to think of as the Big 3 “Codes of Life”: Work hard, join in, and keep your yard neat. (It was a Norwegian town, what can I say.)
Sure, I got some of that from my own family, but when you live in a neighborhood, running in and out of your friends’ kitchens and barging in on others’ lives daily, you pick up a few clues about how to act and, yes, even what to think. Sociologists call this informal social control, that ever-present influence that seeps in and guides your decisions.
Of course, other things matter in shaping behavior and the paths kids choose. The extent of social networks (who you know) in a neighborhood, for example, can open doors—or shut them. Your neighbor’s brand new BMW might fill you with a sense of personal defeat, or make you want to study harder so you can afford your own. If your neighborhood is downstream from Duke Energy, it can certainly affect your health.
If you wake up one morning and the city has planned a highway through your neighborhood, effectively shunting you and your neighbors to the corner, it can affect your access to jobs or other benefits, not to mention send a signal of how much City Hall thinks of you. That same highway can mean your neighborhood is now no longer ideal for supermarkets or day care to locate, and into the void steps liquor stores and check cashing joints.
But it’s social cohesion and informal social control (norms and role models), according to George Galster’s review of the research in “Neighborhood Effects Research: New Perspectives,” that appear to wield the most influence on children’s outcomes, although neither fully explains them. Galster, a professor of urban affairs at Wayne State University, is a panelist at the Urban Forum’s April 25 conference. His work pulls together many of these threads.
Deborah Gorman-Smith, a professor at University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration and director of the Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention, is also speaking April 25. In her research, she has found that social control, in the form of supportive networks, can help reduce violence.
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